Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Baseball doesn’t like to be reminded of its bungling of the steroids issue, but it will be during next few weeks, and even more around this time the next few years. That’s because December is when Hall of Fame ballots go out to members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for consideration of the following year’s potential inductees. By virtue of my 10-plus years of active membership during my columnizing days, I’m one of them, and get to vote. It’s one of my few remaining distinctions.

On the current ballot for the first time is Rafael Palmiero, who normally would be a shoo-in for the Hall. In his 20 seasons (1986-2005) with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles, the first baseman and outfielder exceeded two of the statistical milestones that used to guarantee the game’s version of immortality: 3,000 hits (he had 3,020) and 500 home runs (569). He also was adept enough afield to have received several Golden Glove awards, a nice cherry on his sundae.

Raffy’s name, however, was raised by steroids whistle-blowers during the latter years of his career, so much so that he was called to testify at the broader Congressional hearing into the matter in March, 2005. There, loudly and in no uncertain terms, he said it wasn’t so.

Absent other evidence the denial might have earned him a pass on the issue, but in August of that year, as an Oriole, he tested positive for steroids and was suspended from the game for 10 days. Since he’d already established his legend by that time, getting busted marked him as a dope as well as a doper. Further, the substance that turned up in his urine sample was the potent anabolic stanozolol—real weight-lifter stuff—indicating that he was no mere dabbler in the arcane drug-taking art.

But dopers (or dopes) aren’t excluded from the Hall ballot, so Palmiero is one of 19 first-time nominees in this year’s go-round, and it will be up to us scribes or ex-scribes to make the judgment about his place in the sport’s history. This passing of the buck is all too typical of Major League Baseball, which delayed putting teeth in its anti-steroids rules until 2005, more than a decade after it had been established that use of the drugs was widespread and had definitively altered the way the game was being played.

Thus, baseball deserves the bad ink it will get, and this will increase in future Decembers when the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa appear on the ballot. Unlike Raffy’s, the cases against those guys are circumstantial, but that only ensures a livelier and seamier debate. Swell, huh?

In case you haven’t figured it out, I won’t be making Palmeiro one of my 10 permissible Hall choices in this or probably any other year. Ditto for 17 of the other first-timers, most of whom won’t be admitted to the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine without a ticket. I gave serious attention to just four of them—Jeff Bagwell, John Franco, John Olerud and Larry Walker—and voted only for the relief-pitcher Franco, whose 424 career saves are fourth all-time and first among left handers. Also in Franco’s favor was his 1.88 earned run average and 2-0 record in 15 post-season appearances, all with the Mets, and the fact that he didn’t allow an earned run in four appearances in the 2000 World Series, the only one in which he competed. The guy got ‘em out when it counted.

The other players I’m voting for I’ve also supported in the past. Roberto Alomar, the best second-baseman of his era (1988-2004), came within a few votes of being elected as a first-timer last year, and probably would have been if not for the 1996 incident in which he spit on umpire John Hirschbeck during a home-plate dispute. He and Hirschbeck made up soon afterward, and the year’s delay in Alomar’s election seems more than adequate further penance.

Also likely to be elected with my help, in his 14th year (of a permissible 15) on the writers’ ballot, is Bert Blyleven, the old Twins’ pitcher. A fellow who was good but not great for most of a very long time (22 seasons), Blyleven was an acquired taste for me, but I finally decided that his 3,701 career strikeouts, fifth on the all-time list, was an achievement worthy of honor, not to mention his 287 victories.

I’m partial to shortstops, who usually are the best athletes on any baseball field, and voted for two of them--the Tigers’ Alan Trammell and the Reds’ Barry Larkin. Both excelled at the plate as well as at their demanding position.

I voted for Edgar Martinez, the longtime designated hitter; even though I’m not crazy about the DH, it’s here to stay and nobody ever handled it better than he. I voted for Lee Smith, a dominant reliever with several teams over 18 seasons

My last choice wasn’t last in any other sense. He’s Jack Morris, the right-handed pitcher, and I can’t figure out why he’s never been mentioned on more than last year’s 52% of the ballots in his 11 years up for election. (It takes 75% to get in.)

Morris won 254 games in his 18 seasons (1977-94) and his 58% victory record has few betters. Even though he pitched at a time when quick hooks were coming into vogue, he completed 175 of his 527 starts. His 162 wins were the most for any Major League pitcher during the 1980s. He was great for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series and better yet for the Twins in their epic victory over the Braves in the 1991 event.

He had one of baseball’s best mustaches, ever. Even though he was from Minnesota, the Coen brothers could have cast him in “True Grit.”

Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The parsons of the press box have been working overtime of late, raising weighty questions that impinge upon our enjoyment of the world of fun and games.

How, for instance, should we regard the renewed gridiron brilliance of Michael Vick, the quarterback notorious for his crimes against the canine species? Should we cringe at the prospect of an ex-con becoming an NFL MVP, as do some ink-stained moralists?

Does Tiger Woods’ dismal play over the past year reflect divine retribution for his taste in women? And how about Brett Favre, the renowned good guy and family man --a grandfather, for heaven’s sake!-- propositioning a female New York Jets’ employee during his 2008 season in the Big Apple? Should it at least cost him a jeans’ commercial?

During my columnizing days I took a pass on most such issues, partly because my newspaper generally ignored transgressions of the flesh and partly because I had few illusions about the character of many of the men whose athletic exploits we follow. On an aesthetic level, I have no problem separating the art from the artist and can, say, enjoy a Wagner opera even though the composer was an anti-Jewish putz. Further, no one who has passed a stadium players’ entrance after a big-league game of any sort can doubt the sorry state of monogamy in jockland

However (there’s always a “however”), I confess to being intrigued about the low esteem in which the marvelously talented LeBron James has been held since his July decision to exercise his free-agent rights and, along with fellow free-agent Chris Bosh, jump from the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers to join already-there star Dwayne Wade with the Miami Heat.

Cheers used to follow LeBron wherever he went. Now boos do, and not just from the fans of the team he jilted. The outfit that publishes the “Q Score” popularity ratings puts him on its short list of most-disliked current-day athletes, right up there with the aforementioned Vick and Woods and the blatant me-first guys Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, of football fame. James is a bonafide public enemy, and if he’s not No. 1 (Vick is) he’s close.

What’s up here, anyway? As far as I know, James has committed no crimes, and his domestic situation (two kids by his “girlfriend”) is par for the course among big-time athletes. If he’s been playing in the bimbo league his partners have yet to reveal themselves to the tabs.

The manner in which he announced his decision to change teams—on an over-hyped and overblown prime-time “special” on ESPN—certainly weighs against him, but he’s a young guy (he’ll turn 26 on Dec. 30) who’s never been to college, so I chalk that one up against his advisors, who should have known better.

Public statements surrounding his move fanned the flames. Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s idiotic rant, in which he called the player “callous,” “selfish,” “heartless” and “cowardly,” among other things, fit into that category. So did James’ own assertion that he was moving primarily because he wanted “to be able to win championships.” Fact is, the Cavs were a good team for most of his seven-season tenure in Cleveland, and made the NBA finals in 2007, so he just as well could have accomplished that by staying. If he’d merely said “Where would you rather work—Miami or Cleveland?” he would have gotten a laugh, and some sympathy.

James has opined that his race has been a factor in the reaction against him, and he’s right—it always is in such matters. But he also was black when he was lionized. The mediocre play of the James-Wade-Bosh Heat has subjected him to criticism, but that followed the furor over his signing and, thus, couldn’t have contributed to it.

Alas for LeBron, his sin isn’t in any book, or easily atoned. It’s against our sense of fandom and taps the unease many have felt since the advent of player free agency. Most of us root for the teams we do for reasons beyond reason or, sometimes, even understanding. Fairly early in life we form an attachment to a team, usually one based in or near a city where we live, and that’s it—we’re stuck with it forever. We can no more change it than we can our skin color, shoe size or other intrinsic attribute. Perversely, failure can strengthen the bond; otherwise, no one would be a Cubs’ fan.

Our allegiance is to the name on our team’s jerseys, not to the players who wear them, and it can blind us to the inequities our team sports perpetrate in the name of competitive balance. If when we left college we’d been told we’d been drafted by, say, a newspaper or accounting firm in Fargo, ND, and had to work for it for several years before thinking of going elsewhere, we’d have called a lawyer, but we smilingly accept it when jocks are so treated.

It’s OK for teams to trade players, whether or not they want to be traded. It’s also OK for the New York Yankees to flex their wallet and sign just about anyone they desire; that’s what teams do and we only wish ours could. But woe be unto the player who picks the team he wants to play for and –horrors!—persuades another good player to join him. Where does he get off doing that?

I mean, it’s downright UnAmerican!

Well, it should be.

HOLIDAY NOTE—‘Tis the season for giving gifts, and I have a recommendation for some really nifty ones. They’re my books in the “For the Love of…” series, published by Triumph Books, wonderfully illustrated by Mark Anderson and suitable for fans of all ages. Titles include the baseball Cubs, Yanks, Mets, Red Sox, Cardinals and Tigers, baseball Hall of Famers, golfing greats, the Green Bay Packers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Georgia Bulldogs. To check them out, click on the Triumph Books or amazon.com links above.